8900: The digitally absent composition instructor

This is my first semester teaching a first-year composition course – teaching at all, for that matter. When teaching actual class sections was still a far-off, abstract thing I’d get to do soon – way back in May – I had the idealized notion that I’d nail it on the first try. That notion never really solidified into anything specific that I wanted to include, but I’m pretty sure the intent had been to teach a technologically perfect class. That never really happened. Before I knew it, life was consumed by packing, ill-fated house-hunting trips to Atlanta, and finalizing affairs in Michigan. Then after the move, everything centered pretty much on restarting life here; unpacking, becoming a legitimate Georgia resident, and generally orienting myself.

Then it was less than two weeks before the first day of class and I realized I hadn’t the haziest clue of what I really wanted my classes to look and function like. What was clear was the goal of ensuring students would leave my classes better prepared for college writing than when they entered. I think I did what many people do with their first classes: I retreated to something of a safe mode. I’d do a good job now, but try to make it great later. I built a syllabus around in-class lectures on all the bare essentials of writing (as if I am really qualified to make such pronouncements): process, organization, support, audience, revision, and all the other concepts pedagogy suggests. I then populated it with equally safe writing assignments, added a couple of TBD days to accommodate schedule tweaks, and called it ready. I don’t mean to devalue these things above, because they are the crucial parts of composition education that I hope every class I teach will deliver, but one of the things left on the cutting room floor was my notion of a “technologically perfect” class. It was crunch time, so I set aside that which was difficult to define.

My reaction as a new instructor mimics in part what was discussed in this week’s reading for 8900, but I’ll get to that in a moment. It’s important first to note that what Cynthia Selfe tells us comes from a timeline now significantly different from our own. 1997 (and still in 1999, when her thoughts were republished) was right as the brave new world of computer/internet technology was exploding. She was justified in her apprehension over the willful ignorance she saw in the composition instruction community, and perhaps that anxiety worsened in the light of how she viewed a class-based technological divide. I can see how in 1999, the tendency of comp instructors to omit a structured role for computers from their course plans deprived those of lower technological literacy of yet another opportunity to level the playing field. Beyond simply failing to capitalize upon what computers offered to composition, there did exist the risk that populations statistically less likely to own or make frequent use of computers would find themselves on the wrong side of a widening access gap.

Now back to 2012 in Sparks Hall and Classroom South: have I unwittingly done the very thing that Selfe feared? Have I disadvantaged students by not better integrating the use of computers in my own course design, or is the digital landscape sufficiently different now that I can put those fears aside? I believe we can go beyond the examples that are tirelessly trotted out in digital writing discussions, like social media and the proliferation of cell phones, and acknowledge that the economics are now far friendlier; the average cost of a bare bones desktop hovered around $1,000 at the end of the 90s, whereas perfectly capable laptops can now run between $250-$300. I won’t pretend that’s all there is to the issue of access, but I think that should be less of a concern to Selfe by now. On the other hand, I may still be doing a disservice to students by failing to more assertively break the writing venue model they likely had in high school: come to school, sit in a classroom with 20 other students, listen to one instructor talk about how one figures out how to write best, get an assignment, go home and type it out on a word processor (Selber nailed it – the mode is still a glorified typewriter), and finally hand it in.

I believe my hesitation to include formalized digital writing requirements in my haste to come up with a course plan can be linked back to a question I asked myself constantly during the development phase: “What purpose does this serve?” When I attempted answer that question regarding digital writing, I felt my responses were either too corny and trite (“our students are writing digitally all the time, anyway”) or that I risked distracting from the ultimate point of the course by trying too hard to be current. Thus, I retreated to a safe spot and made a copy of the any other old composition course. Write your papers, get some feedback, revise them, and off you go.

As I’m sure was intended when these readings were chosen, and as I hoped for when I decided on this course for my first semester, I’ve just taken a look at what I planned for my classes and am now thinking that waiting for “great” isn’t going to cut it. What I already have planned is good and important, but I think I need to take another crack at my syllabus to see what I can do better.


13 thoughts on “8900: The digitally absent composition instructor”

  1. Your post fits in with a research topic I am considering – first year composition classes. I enjoyed the way you used your own teaching as an example.

    1. Well that’s the rub. “Technologically perfect” was a vague idea to begin with, somewhere between not at all and everything you write is digitally situated. In this field, there’s always a lot of hand wringing over how to best place computers in the teaching. That’s the reason so many instructors just abandon it altogether. I think that’s an extreme to be avoided. I myself have had classes that utilize Twitter, for example. In fact, the class that required it as a means of concisely sharing relevant articles or thoughts related to the course topic (digital rhetoric) turned my opinion of what Twitter was good for 180 degrees.

      In the case of my course design, I wasn’t sure what real plan I had for it, so I reduced to the basic idea of a comp class that could have easily fit in just as well in 2002, 1992, or 1892. I’m beginning to think I should have included a blog component at the very least.

      1. Maybe a better question then, was how would you leverage computers in a first year composition class as a value add to a student, rather than just a gimmick? What core components of composition can be better served with the use of a computer?

        I think of when I was a TA for various philosophy and ethics classes, we used the comments and notations feature of Microsoft word a great deal, arguably elevating it past the “glorified typewriter” usage.

        1. That’s a fair point. In online tutoring, and in how I plan to give feedback to student papers later this semester, the comment system is useful. But really, that just replicated marginalia comments from the instructor unless you invest in having both parties open and converse in the document for multiple rounds.

          The value add for computers and comp is highly relative to the individual user. I personally see what you and I are doing right now as viable composition. We’re expressing our thoughts in a structured, edited manner, not too unlike how one presents their argument in the classic paper mode. That’s what makes me lean toward including blogging at the least. I had planned on keeping them on the reservation of a course management system for an ongoing writing project that starts later this week. Opening them up to the possibility of anyone they choose to share their posts with, as I just did here, has the value of making them think more about their writing choices. That’s always a plus.

          1. Perhaps we have stumbled on the first practical use for Google Wave… composition classes and their collaborative writing assignments. 😀

  2. Will has an excellent point here, one that should make you feel better about your reluctance to integrate formal digital writing assignments. Many of us do it – regularly – but few could answer the question about purpose. I think we do it mostly because we think of student experience in terms of catch phrases: engagement, enrichment, and so forth. We like to experiment in our classes, to prove we are on the cutting edge, but I’m not sure how effectively any of us really integrates such digital assignments into our curriculum. This is definitely an area I recognize I need some work.

    1. That’s just it. When you’re new at anything you are afraid that you can’t tell the difference between genuine, supported professional thinking and letting the buzzwords fall out of your mouth. Not only do I not want to miss the point altogether and add nothing to the discussion, I don’t want to appear like a little kid shuffling around in grown up shoes – professionally speaking. This comment thread has helped me feel more convinced in my rationale for including blogging. I thank you both for that.

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